The Black Sheep: Cheerleader Camp (1988)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!


Gimme a K-I-L-L! Let’s be real now – of the innumerable raft of sick, sordid, and surly summer-camp slasher flicks flooded in by massive wake left behind by FRIDAY THE 13TH in the 1980s – which happens to be your favorite? Is it THE BURNING? SLEEPAWAY CAMP? MADMAN?

Well, chances are one movie you did not list is the criminally undervalued, highly entertaining, and deceptively crafty CHEERLEADER CAMP, aka BLOODY POM POMS (WATCH IT HERE / OWN IT HERE), a playfully-pitched camp-and-kitsch fest that fuses the sophomoric silliness of a teenage sex comedy with the maddening mystery of a stalk-and-slash whodunit. Directed by John Quinn in his feature film debut, CHEERLEADER CAMP is sneaky good in the way it lulls you into thinking it’s just another cheap and dimwitted teenage TNA show, only to veer into a deeply duplicitous cavern of psychological mystery by the final act. No joke, if ever there was a summer-camp slasher joint that deserved more adoration, it is the Black Sheep known as CHEERLEADER CAMP!

Loosely based on the murder of Kristen Costas, a California high-school student who was murdered by her classmate in 1984, CHEERLEADER CAMP stars Betsy Russell (SAW III-V) as Alison Wentworth, a deeply troubled high-school cheerleader beset with bizarre nightmares and murderous premonitions that instantly implicate her as unstable at best, psychotic at worst. Alison hops in a van alongside male cheerleaders Brent (Leif Garrett) and Timmy (ROAD HOUSE’s Travis McKenna) as well as fellow female cheerers Bonnie (TEEN WOLF’s Lorie Griffin), and playboy models/adult film actresses Teri Weigel and Rebecca Ferratti and alligator mascot Cory (Lucinda Dickey). The spirited squad heads to Cheerleader Camp, which functions more as a competitive jamboree of pre-existing high-school cheerleading teams rather than a place for unrelated teens in attendance to learn how to cheer. Not long after their arrival, a teenage girl is found dead in a cabin, written off as a suicidal act after failing to come in first place during a cheesy cheer-off.

When Alison stumbles on another gore-sodden corpse, it soon becomes clear that a psycho-slaughterer is on the loose. From here, CHEERLEADER CAMP excels in three key areas: the refreshing assortment of kills and graphic gore atypical of 1988, the ludicrous lines of dialogue that reinforce the humor, and the underlying mystery of the killer’s identity. Throw in the preponderance of gratuitous nudity and this is easily one of the most fun-filled summer-camp slashers that virtually nobody talks about. I mean, Leif Garret and his alarming blond-widow’s-peak-perma-mullet is enough to induce side-splitting chuckles throughout the film. Dude looks like he glued a blonde Brillo-pad to his 27-year-old balding pate. F*cker’s got a patch of dyed steel-wool for a wig. I swear, my man looks like he’s wearing a medieval feather-helmet at the front of a Roman chariot.

Before we chart the carnage, the humor must be emphasized. At one point, Timmy feebly attempts to spy on his sexy-ass classmates while they sunbathe by foully recording them from the bushes while disguised as a woman, so that should he be caught, the girls would think he’s just another innocent tourist. The movie is filled with those sorts of silly hijinks and fun-loving pranks that make it hard not to enjoy. Hell, the sheriff even pervs-off in by spying on the girls, to which a local chimes “line of duty my ass, more like the line of dirty!” Later, that same dude ogles at the girls during their competitive routine and greasily grumbles “make your pee-pee harder than a ten-pound bag of nickel jaw-breakers!” Shite’s beyond risible, which makes the movie easy to laugh with and laugh at simultaneously. From experience, it’s the type of flick you watch while cracking a sixer and passing a Marley-doob with friends!

The real strength of the movie lies in its duplicitous whodunit plotline. What works so well in this regard is how insistent the movie is in making you believe Alison is the killer. She may very well be. She’s identified as being an unreliable protagonist from the very beginning, with every sign clearly pointing at her demented psyche. But here’s the thing. She seems way too obvious to be the killer, but because she continues to suffer mortifying nightmares and subconscious stints of violence, that the notion circles back to become extremely plausible. It passes the point of being too obvious and returns to the realm of possibility, particularly as the other characters are increasingly implicated as well. With first place up for grabs, nearly everyone has a motive to kill the competition. The mysterious whodunit element is far craftier than you’d expect. In fact, for as much dumb-fun and stupid shenanigans the movie boasts, the ending is not only unhappy, but it’s dark and devious in ways we could never anticipate.

For a slasher flick released in 1988, graphic gore is extremely rare. Remember, the MPAA strictures formulated under the Reagan administration made it very difficult for horror films to depict the extreme violence made popular in the middle of the decade, 1984 in particular. Popular slasher of 1988, ELM STREET 4, FRIDAY THE 13TH VII, etc. all featured lame cutaway kills that skirted physical impalement in order to show the weak aftermath of grisly death. However, CHEERLEADER CAMP gets away with some barbarous footage most of its higher-profile contemporaries could not. One instance has a female cheerer get the back of her head impaled with a large pair of pruning shears, which we see enter her skull and gorily exit through her pretty little maw.

Another sees a dumbass sheriff get his head caught in a rusty bear-trap until his dome is squashed like a rotten pumpkin until a puddle of blood coats the floor. Another gal catches a flying meat-cleaver to the spine, while yet another is savagely disemboweled by after being struck in the midriff by a speeding van. Hell, even big boy Timmy gets his junk lopped off with a sickle! Unfortunately, the 2004 Anchor Bay DVD release of the film falsely claims to feature the uncut version.

As a summer-camp horror junkie, I can honestly say that CHEERLEADER CAMP is a cut above many to most of its oversaturated ilk. The fusion of sophomoric humor with sneakily crafted whodunit horror is better than most and really works to let your guard down when you least expect it. I can honestly say that I did not correctly guess the killer the first time I saw the film, which is one of the highest compliments you can ever pay a movie so dependent on uncovering the culprit’s identity. A 22% Rotten Tomatoes rating and 4.8/10 IMDB mark is flat-out insulting. Trust us, CHEERLEADER CAMP is a goddamn Black Sheep!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.